Learning for learning's sake is one of the fundamental purposes of higher education, Estelle Morris, the former Education Secretary, said this week.
Delivering the annual Drapers' Lecture at Queen Mary, University of London, Baroness Morris said students should not always have to ask themselves:
"What do I do with this knowledge?"
"There should always be learning for learning's sake and dreaming spires and blue-skies thinking," she said in the lecture, "What Is Higher Education for?". "People should always be able to learn and experiment and (have) it come to nothing."
Lady Morris's comments contrast with those of her successor as Education Secretary, Charles Clarke, who rubbished the study of classics and suggested in 2003 that "a community of scholars seeking the truth" was not in itself "a justification for state funding".
In her lecture, Lady Morris also expressed doubts about the decision to abolish polytechnics in 1992.
"Polytechnics had an identity; people knew what they were good at," she said. After they became universities, the former polytechnics had to compete with established universities on their terms, and their own strengths were hidden and diluted, she argued.
The post-1992 universities had done most to improve access to higher education among deprived groups, but the Government did not reward this valuable work - it chose to reward only research excellence, she said.
All universities would have to change the way they taught their students in order to cope with changes at school level, she added.
Students from poor backgrounds had often achieved their two A levels only by being "practically spoon-fed", with teachers lavishing attention on them and their work. If universities did not teach in the same way, student retention rates would fall, Lady Morris warned. "If universities are not aware of the pastoral care that takes place to get people from non-traditional backgrounds into universities, they will leave them."
Her speech comes ahead of a Royal Society lecture next week in which Nancy Rothwell, the head of research at Manchester University, will warn that universities risk being turned into second-rate businesses by the Government's drive to force institutions to demonstrate the economic benefits of everything that they do.
Ahead of her March 19 lecture to the Academy of Medical Sciences on the highs and lows of academic and industrial collaboration, Dame Nancy told The Times Higher: "We have to be careful not to turn universities into second-rate companies.
"People in industry want universities to support outstanding science. The idea that every academic should talk about patenting every idea they have is not what industry wants."